Eyeliner basics: gel, pencil, liquid, smudge, smear, oh god I’m a panda

Eyeliner’s great. To some people mascara is the most crucial part of a look, but I personally go for eyeliner – it can do a whole lot to change how you look and emphasize your eyes, and if I’m in a rush eyeliner remains something I never skip (eyeshadow, sure; I even go without foundation sometimes). I love eyeliner. Call me an eyeliner enthusiast. If you wear nothing else on your face, eyeliner – along with lipstick – can make the biggest difference.

I also don’t subscribe to the idea that black eyeliner is too harsh for daytime looks, and I’d say most people around here agree with me: black eyeliner is the norm here, of various intensity, fanciness and thickness. While I wouldn’t draw my liner on an inch thick, I find brown just too subtle to properly emphasize eyes, though I imagine dark brown works nicely if you’re doing a ‘no makeup’ look.

What was intimidating and confusing when I started getting into makeup was, which kind of eyeliner? There are really quite a lot of types. My initial eyeliner adventures involved a lot of broken retractable pencils of terrible quality that tugged and pulled at my eyelids while dispensing muddy, grayish pigment instead of the advertised black. It was like trying to line my eyes with charcoal sticks. Otherwise it was liquid eyeliners with soft brush tips that smeared literally everywhere and got stuck in my eyelashes. Very attractive.

So let’s see if I can make eyeliner less intimidating and money-wasting for everyone else!

Finish? Type? Formula?

Liquid eyeliner is for my money the hardest sort to handle: you need a steady hand, a decent brush tip, and a lot of practice. But it’s also the most pigmented and most obviously black, and some liquid liners come with a shiny finish, giving you a ‘lacquered’ look. I prefer liquid liners with a firm tip rather than a soft brush – they let you best control the line’s direction and thickness while softer brushes are prone to smear stuff all over. One downside of liquid eyeliner pens is that they can dry out too soon, though I hear that storing it tip-down can help with that. Good liquid eyeliner should not flake off, smudge, or migrate to your under eye. I generally find them much longer-lasting than pencil or gel and, unless your eyelids are supremely oily, you usually don’t need a primer under a liquid liner.

I’ve sampled a lot, from the devilishly difficult (MAC Liquid Last – it has the rough consistency of tar and may be the most difficult formula on Earth to use, but hoo boy it’ll stay on all day) to the forgiving and easy. Even the most forgiving of liquid liners is still harder to use, though, than pencil or gel. Try: Clio Waterproof Pen Liner (not the Brush Liner), Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eye Liner, Kanebo KATE Super Sharp Liner.


Gel eyeliner: these usually come in a pot and needs a brush to apply. The extra fuss of needing a separate brush isn’t my favorite part about using gel liners (since it’s one more brush to clean), but gel liners are massively more forgiving than liquid. It’s also pretty useful as an eyeshadow base and smudging for smoky looks.

I slag off Clinique skincare but some of their makeup is pretty solid, and the Brush-On Cream Liner is one of them. Actually, it’s much better than the MAC Fluidline. Like a whole lot better, in every way, for a smaller price tag. MAC is $150.00/oz, Clinique is around $97.00/oz. Each pot of Fluidline gives you 0.1 oz of product; the Clinique gives you 0.17 oz of product. Usually having more product per purchase isn’t necessarily the best – price concerns aside – because gel liner in pots can dry out. My Fluidline did, despite storing it upside down, and while in theory you could revive the stuff with eye drops or a trip in the microwave, I’m not a big fan of either idea in practice.


The Clinique liner, though, is famous for never drying out – I hear some people have kept theirs for three years plus and it’s still not dried up (whether it’s advisable to use a gel liner three years going on four is another concern entirely). Mine has retained its creamy consistency, pigmentation, and ease of application after about fourteen months. Good going. More importantly, if you want your eyeliner to be really black-black the Clinique is just more pigmented. It dries, well, true black whereas the MAC Fluidline in Blacktrack gets a bit gray. There are gel liners blacker than the Clinique, but its blackness gets pretty close to liquid liner. Recommended. The only pro MAC Fluidline has going for it is that it comes in a much bigger range of finishes and shades.

Otherwise, try these very cheap, nice options: Essence Gel Eyeliner, Kanebo KATE Gel Eye Liner, Zoeva Cream Eyeliner.

Pencil liners are the most foolproof format. It’s also my least favorite, mainly because I have never met a pencil liner that didn’t slide off my eyelids within the hour. Like, what even. I also have a hate-hate relationship with retractable pencil liners, since pretty much every single one I’ve used snaps off at the drop of a hat, isn’t creamy enough to apply without tugging, and doesn’t dispense enough pigmentation in one stroke, so if I must use a pencil it’s going to be a wooden one that needs sharpening. Bonus: compared ounce to ounce, retractable pencil liners are much more expensive – even taking into account that you’ll sharpen some product away on the wooden one.

I don’t really have a recommendation for pencil eyeliners. Sorry. That’s how badly I get along with them – I only use colorful pencil liners as part of a look, but black pencil liners to do my upper lashline are a no-no.

Primer. There’s a reason there’s a sample of the NARS Smudge Proof Eyeshadow Base in the picture, and not just because I mistook it for a deluxe sample of a NARS pencil liner (okay, it’s because I mistook it for that). I find that if you have even mildly oily eyelids (or hooded ones), you’re going to need some primer on to avoid the not-really-coveted panda look when wearing gel or pencil liner (if your eyelids are very oily, you’ll probably want a primer even for liquid liners). NARS Smudge Proof is my favorite, but it’s also pretty pricey and your eyelids may just not be as oily as mine, so it’s worth trying NYX HD Eye Shadow Base or Zoeva Eyeshadow Fix Matte. Don’t bother with MAC Prep & Prime, it’s just bad.

Tl;dr: Pencil eyeliners are the most beginner-friendly and forgiving to those whose hands aren’t the steadiest. Liquid is the trickiest, least forgiving, but generally the longest-lasting and most pigmented. Gel eyeliners are a nice middle ground and double as eyeshadow base.